Wimping out on tax policy, President Bush has made himself an easy target for liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans who have long suspected he is a born compromiser who can never satisfy their conflicting ideologies. If the current spectacle in Washington were merely a pre-election mud-fight among politicians, it would be of little consequence. The nation hardly stands or falls on the fate of a score of partisans.
What does matter, however, is how the president is perceived by financial markets, by world capitals and by the American public. He is, after all, the one official who is expected to hold this unruly democracy together and give it direction. Yet in the past week Mr. Bush has forfeited his painfully crafted image of decisiveness.
This is a potentially dangerous loss as the crisis in the Persian Gulf moves toward a moment of decision and the economy teeters toward recession. Unless a president inspires confidence and respect, the nation suffers even if his adversaries do not. So there can be no excusing Mr. Bush's vacillation on budget policy, no excusing the blizzard of contradictory White House statements.
This has been, quite simply, the worst week of his presidency -- Wall Street in a free fall, foreign policy trapped between the Israel-Arab and Iraq-Saudi conflicts, a sense of drift in the confrontation with Baghdad and Mr. Bush's popular-approval ratings plunging to Jimmy Carter levels.
Had the president been able to win congressional approval of the budget agreement he hammered out with the bipartisan legislative leadership on Sept. 30, the country would still be wandering in the thickets of Reaganomics and the mists of its only dimly defined role in the post-Cold War era. These things take time. But he was deserted by House Republicans, who now want a trade-off -- a higher income tax bracket in exchange for a lower capital gains tax rate -- and Senate Republicans who want no part of such a deal.
Mr. Bush now is in the ridiculous position of first rejecting a trade-off, then accepting one, then rejecting it again, then saying he would let Congress decide and, at latest report, endorsing a trade-off but holding it has no chance of passage. This is leadership?
In political terms, Republicans now fear the Democrats have captured the tax-fairness issue while painting the GOP as the party of the rich. They may be right. But Democrats, who are not above self-immolation, may yet find themselves boxed in as the party that voted new taxes.
It would be comic, if it were not so serious, to observe all this caterwauling over marginal changes in the tax code that will have only minor economic and transitory political impact. Because the whole mess demeans this nation, puts its security in jeopardy and damages the well-being of millions, it is nothing short of an outrage.